Yesterday, Google rolled out some big changes to its search engine, attempting to more fully integrate results from social networks. Well, not network[s], but network. Google does not have the right to index most Facebook content, and Google search will integrate content from Google + . It has three main tweaks. First, search will display, in your results, photos and post from Google+ where relevant, but only those posts in your own account and those shared with you. Other people will not see these results; they’re personalized. Second, Google + profiles will show up in search and in Google’s usual autocomplete function. Third, Google will suggest relevant profiles and pages on Google +; if you search for music, you might see Sufjan Stevens’ profile.
There’s been a range of reactions and I figured I would write up a few thoughts from my perspective as a user and as a lawyer.
As a user, I am a creature of habit and don’t like change. Whenever Facebook changes its look, I get uncomfortable. Unlike my little cousins on the site, I don’t freak out and threaten to leave the site (and then decide to stay), but I adjust slowly. In fact, Gmail has rolled out a “new look,” and I keep switching back to the “old look” I know and love. I could even opt out of Google’s new personalized search, something that Eli Pariser has praised. But search and social are converging and have been for years. Last February, Microsoft and Facebook announced an initiative to make search “more social” on Bing. Google has had personalized search for 7 years and social search for about 2 years. Experts let us know that our social presence affects our search placement and vice versa.
Plus, I could see how these tweaks would be very useful to me as a user. It is useful to me because I might see relevant stories photos shared with me on Google + but that, for some reason, I overlooked when posted. It would be far more useful if Facebook posts and Twitter posts showed up in my results, but Facebook doesn’t want its content integrated into Google search and Twitter’s deal with Google lapsed. I find personalized search convenient–I read stories on my Facebook feed, my Twitter feed, daily email services, and my iPhone’s Flipboard app, and would love to be able to focus my searches on just those particular services.
But some of the criticism has focused on antitrust concerns. The New York Times quoted Professor Mark Lemley, of Stanford, saying that antitrust law just doesn’t apply here. Google has wanted to index and present results from a huge portion of the web that is invisible to Google: Facebook. So now Google is presenting its own social content, and antitrust, in his words, simply cannot restrain this practice. Lemley, like me, is a lawyer who has done some work for Google, and my law firm continues to do some work for Google, though not on this product.
I also don’t see the antitrust problem, but I haven’t seen an actual antitrust theory proposed. I assume the argument is one that the courts call “monopoly leveraging,” where a dominant company extends its monopoly from one market into another market. People argue Google is a monopoly in search because it handles over 60% of queries. But being a monopoly is not enough–that is the natural result of having better search results. To be illegal, under leveraging theory as I understand it, Google would also have to have a “dangerous probability” of monopolization of the new market–social. (Trinko, note 4) No offense to Google, but I just don’t see how Google has a dangerous probability of knocking off Facebook in social.
In fact, if the critics are right, and again they haven’t been clear on their theory, I am not sure how Facebook’s tactics shouldn’t be condemned by the same critics. It would also be considered monopoly leveraging. Facebook is probably dominant in social, with 800 million users and has far higher engagement than Google +, which only has 40 million users. Nobody else comes close to those new networks, meaning Facebook could be a monopoly in social (depending on how you define the market). Facebook refuses to let Google index or display content from its site. Facebook has partnered with Bing to make its results more social. Is Facebook acting to leverage its dominance in social towards a dominance in search? I don’t really think so and antitrust law generally encourages aggressive competition that hurts competitors. These moves look like competition, hopefully making Google better at social (and search) and Facebook better at both as well.
Beyond antitrust, Twitter slammed the changes as bad for the Internet and for undermining the ability of users to find real-time news. Those looking for real-time news usually search Twitter and will probably continue to do that. (A CNET writer called the claim “a bit of a stretch.”) I discover real-time news far more often on Facebook than on Google News or a regular Google search. The change may encourage people to post breaking news on Google + so that the results show up in Google search, but it’s not clear that people posting breaking news will do so only on one service. News seems to travel far more quickly on Twitter and Facebook than through search. I can see why Twitter would oppose the move, but their response hasn’t suggested that Google has done anything illegal or improper, and I’m not yet convinced of its real-time argument. Professor Eric Goldman came to a similar conclusion–that the legal argument is missing.
These are really just quick thoughts. I hope my search results get better but don’t yet see an actual legal theory suggesting Google can’t incorporate social results into search.